Chuck Kinder is the author of four novels—Snakehunter, The Silver Ghost, Honeymooners, and Last Mountain Dancer—and three collections of poetry—Imagination Motel, All That Yellow, and Hot Jewels. West Virginia University Press has just published new editions of Snakehunter, his first novel, and The Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life, his latest novel. Here, Donna Meredith, associate editor of the Southern Literary Review and award-winning author of The Glass Madonna, The Color of Lies, Wet Work, Fraccidental Death and Magic in the Mountains, explores Kinder’s remarkable career.
A dozen Chuck Kinder personas are sitting in a honky tonk. Would the real one please stand up?
At times, Kinder seems like your basic outlaw author, the “Jerry Lee Lewis of American Letters” he aspires to be (Last Mountain Dancer, 452). The man who ran wild at Stanford with short-story giant Raymond Carver and befriended fellow writers Scott Turow, Tobias Wolf, and Larry McMurtry. Later in his career, Kinder and Lee Maynard even embarked on a book tour under the Outlaw Author banner.
Or the real Chuck could be living inside a movie, any movie, but most often Rebel Without a Cause, “and as its star he could become always just what he imagined he was,” a James Dean with “dreamboat eyes” (Silver Ghost, 50; Last Mountain Dancer, 34). He even attached the name of Dean’s fabled role Jimbo Stark to his protagonist in both Silver Ghost and The Honeymooners. When I interviewed him in December 2017, he admitted he is “a rebel seeking a cause.” But Jimbo wasn’t the only role Kinder imagined himself assuming. In Last Mountain Dancer, Kinder envisions himself as Matewan Sheriff Sid Hatfield and Mayor C. C. Testerman, heroes for standing up for striking miners in Matewan, WV. A former lover’s accusation that he lived his life like a movie he was making up as he went along contains more than a little truth. He says his imagination and memory are cinematic in nature.
Or could Chuck actually be the country hick he sometimes pretends to be? After all, he was born in Montgomery, West Virginia, population 1,638. Nah—even Chuck admits in Last Mountain Dancer the only thing he knew personally about real country or hill people was that they rode school buses, while town kids like him walked to school unless they were lucky enough to have a car. He adopted the hick persona to look cool to fellow writers—or alternatively to blend in with locals when visiting southern West Virginia.
Perhaps he is most widely known as an iconic professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught for more than three decades and served as the director of the creative writing program. Former students say the real Chuck Kinder was an amazing teacher who inspired them to produce their own best stories. Michael Chabon and Gretchen Moran Laskas are two of his protégés. Laskas, author of The Miner’s Daughter and The Midwife’s Tale, says because of Kinder’s encouragement, she first began to believe in herself as a writer. Chabon, who won the Pulitzer for Fiction with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, even based the character of Professor Grady Tripp in his novel Wonder Boys on Kinder. Michael Douglas starred in the movie version, but Kinder claims, tongue-in-cheek, that Douglas wasn’t sexy enough to handle the role.
Kinder is definitely much more than he suggests in the last line of Last Mountain Dancer: “just a poor old mostly imaginary rhetorical being dancing with his mythic dick.” Fellow outlaw Lee Maynard dared him to end a novel with those words. While they are a suitable summary for the personal narrative portion of Last Mountain Dancer preoccupied with Kinder’s ill-advised affair with a much younger woman, they hardly capture the essence of this complicated man or even the massive scope of the book itself, which gathers the myths and lore that abound in the Mountain State.
The problem with trying to pin down the real Chuck Kinder is that, even more so than most humans, his identity shifts, depending on the moment and situation, a realization that sweeps over him in Last Mountain Dancer: “the reality of who I was and who I had been and who I could never be came rushing back over me like a wave of unutterable sadness.”
My favorite candidate for the real Chuck Kinder rides under the “Famous Orthur” banner in his brother-in-law’s yellow Caddy in a Fourth of July parade described in Last Mountain Dancer. The banner embodies the same self-deprecating humor found in some of Kinder’s best writing. He claims he isn’t famous, but if he isn’t, he should be. Each of his books is unique and wholly original in approach. His writing eschews the formulaic, the stilted, the expected.
Defining Kinder’s style proves just as difficult as defining the man. He has experimented with a range of techniques, from the impressive first person narration, symbolism, and fact lists he calls his “uber voice” in his first novel, Snakehunter; to the blend of gonzo journalism and memoir of Last Mountain Dancer. The truth is, his writing won’t hold still long enough to analyze it. Every time you read it, light glances against the sentences from a different angle, altering your perceptions, changing your interpretation. Symbols shift mysteriously as you sift through the pages.
Kinder began developing his craft at West Virginia University. His earliest major writing influence was Russell McDonald, who taught the first writing classes offered at WVU. He introduced Kinder to the work of Reynolds Price, in particular A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man. McDonald also encouraged Kinder to read James Agee’s A Death in the Family and The Morning Watch. About this same time, Kinder began to read Faulkner, whose use of voice in the Cassie scenes and sections from The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, impacted Kinder’s own writing. While a student at WVU, Kinder became friends with Leaving Las Vegas author John O’Brien and WV Poet Laureate Irene McKinney. In McDonald’s class, Kinder wrote several stories which gradually evolved into a longer narrative called Memorial Day that became his creative writing thesis. That piece has the distinction of being the first creative writing thesis in the English Department’s history, and it became part of his application to Stanford University where he was admitted as an Edith Merrilees Fellow. Eventually, that thesis became the basis for Snakehunter, published by Knopf in 1972. Snakehunter is one of the most richly symbolic stories I’ve ever read, incorporating the warm memories of a child and a contrasting, much colder voice of a young man. It is now being reprinted by the West Virginia University Press, along with his latest novel, Last Mountain Dancer.
Although Kinder’s body has been weakened by two strokes, a heart attack, triple bypass surgery, and knee-replacement surgery, his mind remains sharp. From his home in Key Largo with his wife Diane Cecily at his side, he is still writing. These days he has turned to poetry, the shorter pieces less taxing on his body than novels. That lifelong fascination with film continues as a motif in his poems.
A rebel’s search for a cause drives Kinder to continue to shape his cinematic vision into words. “All art is a search when you consider it,” he says. “I am reminded of something T.S. Eliot wrote—something on the order of ‘We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'” At seventy-five, Kinder is still searching, and with the reprinting of Snakehunter and Last Mountain Dancer, we join his quest.